It seems to me that the majority of Americans, and many people around the world, don’t have the time, or energy, to whip up a gourmet dinner every night of the week. Am I right? Well, in case I am here’s a post about how I get around the problems of lacking time and energy to crank out satisfying, healthful food for three meals a day, seven days a week.
Being gluten free, I do have to make most of my meals from scratch. Sure, there are some great ready made products on the market these days, but I’ve learned to do without them. When I first removed gluten from my diet there weren’t that many ready made foods in health food stores, let alone the regular market. That was only five years ago. Today there are thousands of gluten free products on the market, and maybe even a couple hundred available to me right here on Maui. There are a couple problems with buying these products on a regular basis. Some of them could be labeled “food like substances” (Thanks for the term Michael Pollan!), and others are just far too expensive to shell out cash for every week. So, I’ve become used to making food from scratch, while only buying the prepared foods occasionally. It’s more healthful for my body, and my budget.
Here’s how I go about doing that.
1. I plan.
I make a meal plan every week. I sit down with a spiral bound notebook, a pencil, my computer, and my cookbooks once a week to sketch up the ideas I have for the coming week. I look through recipes I have in my computer, and I look through my cookbooks. I also look back through my notebook at older meal plans I’ve made so I can remember what went over well, and what didn’t. I can also look over what certain items cost on average; and I can see how much the prices on certain foods have risen since I began planning in that particular notebook. If I need to be more efficient with my time, I limit how the sources I use to one or two. This keeps me from spending too much time scouring the web for more ideas. It also keeps our favorites in rotation. On my computer I use the MacGourmet recipe program. With it I can organize foods by category, keywords, type of meal, and even type of cuisine. I can also rate them. Recipes that score a 4- or 5-star rating end up in my favorites. Those that earn a 2- or 3-star rating may be made again, but not regularly. Those only worthy of 1-star usually get deleted. The program is also great in that I can clip recipes from the internet right into the program. Once the data is in MacGourmet I can easily set the text as the title, ingredients, directions, notes, etc.. If I want to branch out from the computer, I pull out a trusty cookbook to look for recipes that I know we love, but that haven’t been put in the computer, or to search for new ideas.
Once I’ve done all of this idea hunting, I write it down in the notebook for the days of the week. I usually only plan dinners, as the leftovers will be used for lunches (more on that later). I look at my calendar to see what events are coming up, and then plan accordingly. If we’re going to be out, I might not plan anything for that evening and instead look at what restaurants are good where we’ll be. If there are no places, then I’ll plan to pack something in my purse (usually a sandwich or snack bar). On school nights I usually plan something in the slow cooker.
When planning, don’t forget to look at what ingredients you already have in the cupboards, fridge, and freezer. This will save you money, and you won’t accidentally buy an extra of something you already have. It’s also a good idea to plan one big, bulk meal a week so that you have plenty of leftovers for the freezer. Having one night be a constant is also a good idea. Make one night a week about pizza, or tacos, or ratatouille. Whatever food happens to be your favorite. It can be super healthful, or it can be a splurge.
When the plan is made, and the shopping list of items needed to create the reality is organized, I put the cooler in the car and head out to the store (this may or may not happen in one day). Planning may sound hard, or like a lot of work, and sometimes it is! Sometimes I get planner’s block, and I just have to walk away and come back later. It’s okay if this happens. Accept it for what it is, and then try again at a better time. Really, this process should only take 30 minutes to an hour. Less time is required if you’re allowed to focus, more time if you’re not.
Dedicate some time to this, and I’m pretty darn sure you’ll lose less time than you would if you hadn’t planned at all.
2. I have a love affair with my slow cooker.
Twice a week I spend almost all day away from home. So, I want to ensure that Devin has something healthy to eat. To do this, I turn to my slow cooker. I actually have two. I have a 4-quart and a 6-quart. It’s a really good idea to have two sizes if you can afford them, and if you have the space. If only one is an option then decide if you’d rather make smaller batches of food, but cook them more often or if you’d like to do large batches, and cook them less often. I only had the 4-quart for a long time, and it was enough. Now, I like having the 6-quart because I can really bulk out recipes.
If you don’t know what to put in the slow cooker, there are a lot of recipes online that are gluten free, or could easily be made gluten free. You could even pick up a book on slow cooking. I like Stephanie O’Dea’s “Make it Fast, Cook it Slow.” I was using her website for a long time before she even made the book, so I knew I liked her recipes. Did I mention that her family is gluten free too? This means her recipes are as well! Most of them are delicious, but there have definitely been a couple of no-repeats for us.
I’ve started having Devin set timers to stir whatever is in the crockpot should that need to happen while I am out. I’m also getting him trained to turn it off when he goes to get his dinner. There’s nothing like overcooked food.
3. I love leftovers.
Who says that? Seriously? I do. Even Devin loves leftovers. If you make a bunch of something delicious, who cares if it’s a leftover? We have a bunch of Glasslock containers, but we’ve used the inexpensive plastic containers as well, and we fill them up with the leftover food. Portioned out into the containers, the food cools faster and it is ready for individual servings of food for lunches and dinners. Usually they’re just eaten for lunches, but if I really don’t have time to even put something in the slow cooker, then I know that the food is ready in the freezer for a quick pop in the microwave. Some people don’t like microwaves, but it’s pretty much the only cooking tool Devin can operate (I have taught him to bake ready made cookie dough in the toaster oven though). Most of the microwave scare is based on bad “science” or outright fallacies anyway.
4. I make vegetarian meals.
Meat can take a really long time to cook depending on the cut, and the type of meat. So, sometimes I skip the meat and cook some quick cooking lentils, rice or quinoa, and vegetables. Tada! Dinner. A steamed artichoke alongside some herbed quinoa is also a satisfying dinner.
5. I pre-cook breakfasts.
Sometimes I pre-cook a big pot of teff and then serve it up as a hot breakfast. This is especially nice on cold, winter mornings. I could also do oatmeal, quinoa, or brown rice. Yogurt (dairy or non-dairy) is also a fast option, as are smoothies. Even smoothies could be prepared in advance.
5. Sometimes I just give in and use something ready made.
It’s not very often, but lately I have been buying ready made bread because I just haven’t had either the time, or energy, to make some myself. I also don’t always have the time, or energy, to make tortillas so I’ll buy them sometimes. Cold cereal has also been ending up in our pantry because I just want to make a quick bowl of something to eat so that I can set to work.
6. I try to remember to slow down, to not worry, and to remember that food doesn’t have to take very long, be very elaborate, or be very pretty. It just needs to be tasty and healthy. I try to take the time to dance in the rain instead.
There are many options, but these are just the ways that I make it all work. How do you make sure you eat healthful food on a tight time/energy/monetary budget?